Raimey: A Breath of Fresh Ayah

RAIMEY JORDAN wears mismatched rubber boots and an old green cap. Two, maybe three, days ago, he shaved. He stands with a slight crouch as if he just dropped a bar of soap or a spoon on the floor and is about to pick it up when the phone rings. He seems permanently caught between two demands and is in no hurry to decide."Well," he says, his jaw jutting out like a small elbow, "I used to listen to Pierre Monteux's concerts, but I'm probably the one who enjoyed 'em the least." The cadence of Raimey's voice is pure Down-Easter Maine, a little crackling edge of bemusement to it, and an up-and-down rhythm that carries the sound of wisdom in the bag of trick or treat, which brings us to Pierre Monteux, who is an honorary member of the Hancock, Maine, fire deprtment. Raimey, volunteer fireman Tom Johnson, Monitor photographer Neal Menschel, and I are standing in front of the fire station in Hancock, a crisp, little town on U.S. Route 1. On the inside wall of the station hangs an old fireman's hat with Monteux's name on it. (The French music director was conductor of the Boston Symphony for a few years in the 1920s and continued to guest conduct for many years.) "Well," says Raimey, pointing north, "Pierre owned a sumah house oveah theah, and on sumah days he'd give concerts. Right abuht that time I'd start tah mow the cemetery lawn with a powah mowah. Well, folks'ed wave at me and ask me to have lunch or do sumthin' quiet." He grins very slowly and subtly. "So, I'd cut the powah and eat." The twinkle in Raimey's eye finds its way into his voice, his clothes, his demeanor, maybe his politics, probably his car, his breakfast for sure, and even the way he mows the cemetery lawn. Raimey says he's close to 60, born and raised in Hancock. "I liked it well enough to stay a spell," he says. He's the odd-job man around town now, mowing the cemetery lawn, taking care of the church building and grounds, doing gardening and straightening what's bent, cracked, or broken. His old, red Chevy is filled with an amalgam of stuff: cartons, plastic bottles, old tools, blankets, a mailbox, clothes, papers, all mounded in the back and front seats. "It's mostly stuff I was fixin' to take out, but never got around to it. See those small American flags?" he asks, pointing to small flags attached to wooden sticks on top of the back seat pile. "The mowah went through a row of 'em once at the cemetery, so I keep these in case I do it again." Tom tells Raimey he thinks the Chevy's engine is idling a little fast these days. Tom doesn't care as much about the idle as he does about his duty to play straight man for Raimey. "Someday I hope to lift the hood," says Raimey, stretching out the words like taffy, "and try to find the screw to adjust the idle." He offers a half-grin, slowly. Tom says, "Raimey, cars don't have idle screws anymore." "They don't?" says Raimey in a quick take. "Oh my." Tom asks Raimey how he gets his wife in the car. "We use her cah," says Raimey. m willing to pay for her gas so's I don't have to clean out this one." While Raimey poses for Neal in front of the yellow fire engine, I run through some other places I've been where the art of banter and repartee is the buttery delight of daily life. In Georgia on Route 1, Neal and I talked with a group of good old boys gathered at a flea market. Tale spinners they were, each with a yarn, and each feeding the other with retorts, mild insults, and one-liners. The rhythms of speech were Southern, but the intent of the flow was the same as in Hancock, to connect with one another informally in the cup of common humor, to exercise the ability to simply enjoy each other's humanity. Years ago in Germany while hitchhiking around Europe, I was desperate for a place to stay late one night and stumbled across a youth hostel in a castle. Dozens of students were angrily waiting for beds as a rather autocratic manager of the hostel was engaging anybody who was willing in banter about national characteristics. Sleepy and exhausted, but sensing that the path to a bed was to join the fun, I did my best to put aside my shyness and trade harmless insults. It worked; I had a bed for the night. But after two days of the manager's forced humor, the atmosphere was stilted and awkward. Here in Hancock, the art form has reached its peak of ease with the Down-East Raimey Jordans of the world. They aren't negotiating for a bed. They just are. Try too hard to analyze how the humoring so easily works, and the joy of the fun falls apart in your hands. It's as much a part of life here as blueberries, rocky shores, and back roads with no signs. Raimey steps away from the fire engine after his photo has been taken. With his hat off he looks too white and unnatural in the sun. I take him by surprise and ask him to imagine himself seated in front of President Bush. What would he ask Bush? Raimey looks intently at me, jaw sticking out, hands clasped. "Well," he says after a few moments, "the wheels are turnin' but it looks like nothin's coming out." Then he launches into a description of his appearance in winter. "I wear so many sweatahs that I go from a 32-inch waist to a 62," he says. "I can barely drive my cah." We talk for another half hour, with Tom giving Raimey plenty of opportunity to work the audience. About a meeting at the school to discuss widening the highway, Raimey says, "I saw all the cahs pahked theah, but I didn't bite." Raimey is still talking as Neal and I get in the car. He leans down to talk in the driver's side window, telling us a story about a woman who wouldn't stop eating cough drops. I start the engine. "I could get the dogs and cats to eat good food," says Raimey, "but I couldn't get her to eat much else. I guess she liked the crunch." Finally he senses we really have to leave. Tom says, "Raimey, we got to let these boys go on their way." Raimey straightens and says slowly, "If you keep talking so much to me, you won't make it to Fort Kent." He waves us away. In the rear window I see him standing by the fire engine watching our car like a man wanting us to stay, but hoping we'll leave so he can tell somebody else about these two funny-looking guys he met at the fire station. One took notes and the other one took pictures, but they didn't have much to say.

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